I was recently traveling through the very busy Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport, and one of the employees at a kiosk stopped me to give me an interesting compliment. She pointed at my face and said: “You are the smartest person in this airport; you are the only one wearing a mask!”

While her comment wasn’t entirely accurate, there was some semblance of exaggerated truth in her statement that I had clearly noticed while bumping shoulders with thousands of travelers from planes, to terminals, to trains in the massive airport.

I have been in and out of plenty of airports the last few months, and one thing is clear: the majority of people are not interested in wearing masks or taking precautionary measures to limit the spread of infectious diseases. It is no surprise that our nation is now struggling with the fast-growing rise of the monkeypox outbreak.

We have not been able to get through to the masses about protecting ourselves and our fellow human beings.

This is mind-blowing to me, given the state of the world since March 2020. I’m reminded of two age-old axioms that ring true: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” and “If you know better, you do better.”

Over the last two and a half years, our world has suffered great loss of life, physical health, mental health, finances, and more. African Americans have suffered disproportionately. Yet, with all that loss, we have not been able to get through to the masses about protecting ourselves and our fellow human beings.

I am no medical doctor or epidemiologist, but I have learned that vaccines, mask-wearing, and physical distancing help to lower the risk of spreading diseases considerably. I wear a mask, wash my hands, and try to keep my distance because I could be protecting myself from germs and, maybe more importantly, limiting the spread of germs to someone else. I get vaccinated to stave off major complications should I get infected.

As I go in and out of public spaces, I am amazed by the number of people I encounter who don’t seem to have any interest in doing anything to slow down the spread of viruses. Our federal and state leaders have not seemed to have learned much either. 

Now we are facing the spread of monkeypox. 

California declared a state of emergency in response to the monkeypox outbreak Monday. It is the third state to do so, with Illinois making a similar announcement hours before. New York declared a state disaster emergency on July 29. New York City mayor Eric Adams issued a similar order for the city Monday.

What is concerning is our inability as a global community to react accordingly.

But with more than 7,000 known cases across the U.S., on Thursday, the Biden Administration declared Monkeypox a public health emergency. Doing so will allow the federal government to access money and resources to distribute much-needed vaccines nationally.

According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, monkeypox cases have grown tremendously in the last couple of months. And similarly to the COVID outbreak, the federal government is having a difficult time disbursing vaccines in a timely fashion. As of July 29, the state of California was waiting on 78,000 vaccine doses from the federal government. 

Monkeypox is just the disease of the hour. There will be other diseases that travel from person to person in the future. What is concerning is our inability as a global community to react accordingly.

I don’t have to be told over and over again that wearing a seatbelt helps to protect me while driving. When I hear people perishing in auto crashes because they didn’t wear seatbelts, my heart is broken because it was likely a preventable death. Thankfully, wearing seatbelts never got politicized like mask-wearing or vaccines — likely saving millions of lives over the years. Sure, it is my right as an individual to not wear a seatbelt, but it isn’t safe to make that decision. 

I am hoping that we can begin to realize how important it is to protect the gift of life and take care of ourselves and each other before suffering another pandemic. If we fail to act, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Larry Lee is the publisher of the Sacramento Observer.